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A substantial river, ridges and valleys, the view from Agnet’s window suggested they were closing in on the farm. There! A fenced slash, tan and muted greens, materialized in the autumn-mottled hills.

“That must be it!” The security guard—Collins—Brandt Collins, thick of neck, and broad of chest, hopped forward, seated himself next to her, and pointed out Agnet’s window. “Ridgelands Penal Colony.” He said the name of the prison using the reverent tone she’d use for “oyster soup with sourdough bread.” At least the mission excited somebody.

The purser, fussy lipped and disapproving, probably as a matter of course—nothing personal—positioned himself at the front of the cabin. “Because of the destination’s dubious nature, we’ll be making an air landing.”

Brandt applauded. “Wow! Fantastic. I hoped for an air landing.”
Agnet raised an eyebrow at him; he reminded her of a large, friendly canid always ready to chase that ball. She raised a hand. “Excuse me. Ridgefield Farms is a low security facility. The prisoners are called ‘trainees.’ We’re talking embezzlers, petty thieves, low level black marketeers. And we can’t properly land?”

A stubborn look pruned the purser’s mouth. “Regulations forbid ground landings at penal colonies, so no ground landing. And anyway, Captain’s orders.”

She maintained a stoic face while the butterflies swarmed in her gut. Behind her, Yoder whispered. “Pardon me, but what’s an air landing?” Philip Spool, the lead perceiver, chuckled, but she couldn’t hear his reply. The man was soft-spoken and a bit…languid or remote, maybe heading for perceiver end game. Be interesting to see how a city boy like Spool handled himself on an air ladder. But she wouldn’t notice; she’d be busy trying not to die.

Half an hour later, the ship hovered over an open field, the carriage slowly descending, but not low enough. A gallon of adrenaline dumped into her system. Heights weren’t her strong suit. The purser opened the embarkation hatch, tossed out a rope ladder and made an ushering-out gesture.

“A ladder?” Brandt’s mouth drooped at the corners.

Was he anxious, now faced with an air landing’s harsh reality? Then Yoder’s anxious face crossed her field of view, so she listed some obvious facts, facts she’d pushed out of her mind during the flight.

“Destination is too remote for a tower, no convenient large body of water, and a landing would expose this highly valuable ship to various hazards.” And they were not valuable nor high-ranking passengers. “We’re just going to have to suck it up.”

Brandt shrugged. “I figured no tower. It’s just I hoped we’d be para-gliding down. Para-gliding’s a rush, so the ladder’s kind of a letdown.”

Yoder eyed Brandt like one would eye a venomous and psychologically unstable serpent. The soldier’s face betrayed no humor or bravado. He was being sincere. “Sorry, no para-gliding today.”

Nice that her security man didn’t suffer from vertigo, but she’d take bullets, machetes, or bombs over heights any day. Nothing worse than a midair disembark, whether by ladder or, for the love of Pete, para-gliding. The rest of the team, presumably also non-para-gliders, looked stiff in the face. She’d better go first, just to get it over with and to set an example.

A gust of wind ruffled her hair and jostled the carriage. Agnet wiped her moist palms on her pants, knelled at the threshold, and gripped the hand holds, simple metal brackets set into the cabin’s floor right in front of the hatch. She stretched leg out, reached out a comfortable distance, and placed her foot solidly on a rung. Then the next leg, and, in a moment, her legs would stop shaking and cease being gelatin. Now a deep inhale, because the next move was the worst. She released the hand hold and felt for the rope because no way in hell was she going to look down. Got it! The shaggy rope felt reassuringly thick and absorbed the sweat on her palm. The next hand was easier. And once she was fully out of the carriage and staring straight ahead, survival seemed possible. One foot and one hand at a time, and she was down.
When they’d all assembled on terra firma, the purser retracted the rope ladder, threw them a wave, and the carriage floated skyward. The ship silently vanished into the clouds, taking prison break via hijacking off the menu, the crew returning to their comfortable homes. Whereas, they were marooned in a dying field beneath a gun metal sky.

Orl, the trainee, very young and a member of a fashion subculture, stared west into the lowering sun, an expression of bliss on her face. Hopefully, she was just glad to be on the ground, but might as easily be stark, raving mad. Then she opened her mouth and sort of…croaked. Philip gave her a woeful expression, then stared into the sky as if willing the ship to return. Jemin, who’d been standing with eyes shut, wrists crossed against his chest, probably glad to be alive, flipped open a rag book and began sketching. Brandt stood at attention, looking reassuringly professional.

An emergency, they’d said. Read up on the plane, they’d said, dumping responsibility for this mess in her lap. They’d assumed she’d care. Because they knew she’d care, even though nothing but problems stemmed from her caring about outcomes: mission outcomes, interpersonal outcomes, organizational outcomes, outcomes for herself and the flipping planet. She’d make suggestions, improve procedures, or ask questions pissing everybody off, because she cared. Caring was the worst. Caring was a mistake. Caring left you vulnerable to disappointment and frustration. Caring made you a target.
She shouldn’t care about this ridiculous mission, some kind of excuse, window-dressing, or coverup. She wouldn’t care. She wouldn’t worry about these people and their competency, or lack there of. They could be anybody: criminals, dissenters, deviants, whatever. She just needed them to survive this mission because she couldn’t take any more looks askance and stilled whispers.

As if on cue, Yoder’s glasses slid down his nose and dropped into the mud, and Orl retracted into her hood and stepped behind Philip, like a kid hiding behind mommy on the first day of grammar school. At least she wasn’t croaking.
The breeze carried a whiff of manure, reminding her, on top of everything else, she was off her turf. Most of the bad stuff went down in metropolitan areas. Lots of people in cities, or maybe the rural had an easier time quietly burying their victims, given all the soil. A small group of people approached from the direction of a compound.

“Here comes the welcoming committee!”

She sighed. Brandt sounded enthusiastic and looking indestructible. Once upon a time, she’d been enthusiastic and indestructible too. But now, she was tired—but still a professional. She willed confidence, straightened her posture, and prepared for introductions, carefully worded conversation, and the dreaded but inevitable chatting.

The prison staff closed in.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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